Category Archives: General

General posts about Freeform Games

“Best” Murder Mystery Parties

Here’s a roundup of murder mystery party games by Hexagamers. They’ve taken a good long look at the various murder mystery companies that you can find on the internet and are trying them out to judge which really are the best.

Happily, we’re in the list – but they have yet to try one of our games. We’re looking forward to their feedback when they do.

Unbiased reviews

One of the things they talk about is the lack of unbiased reviews on the internet. Everyone puts testimonials from satisfied customers on their sites – and we do it here: Your murder mystery stories.

But they do point out the lack of negative reviews. After all, as a company we’re incentivised only to put up the good stories. That’s only human nature, obviously, but it’s not the only story. Most of the time we only receive positive reviews – and I think that’s because if the party has gone well, then people like to share their enjoyment. If it hasn’t gone well, they’re less likely to want to send us feedback.

But the point about unbiased reviews remains.

There are options for unbiased reviews such as Trustpilot, so that’s something we might explore.

Facebook likes

It’s also interesting to see how many Facebook likes the other companies have. We don’t push Facebook particularly hard and so we haven’t chased Facebook likes, but clearly we could do a bit better.

Playing A Will to Murder

Cornelius and Janice conspiring on the balcony

We don’t often get to play our games, but last weekend I played in A Will to Murder.

Guy, one of my tabletop roleplaying friends, had bought A Will to Murder, and wanted to try one it with some of his friends. Although he didn’t ask me to run it (I thought he was going to), I said I was happy to play when I heard he was organising it.

Luckily, I couldn’t remember the plot of A Will to Murder. I last read it back in 2010, when I was proofreading it for Mo (who wrote it). Seven years is enough time for me to have completely forgotten about it, particularly given that I’ve not played it.

(So that explains why, if you ask a question about one of our older games, sometimes I’m a little slow in replying: I’m busy refreshing my memory. I’m pretty sure Mo has a much better memory.)

Even if I had remembered the plot, I would still have been happy to play and help make up the numbers. (If that had happened, I wouldn’t have played to win – that wouldn’t have worked as I would have known too many game secrets. Instead I would have played to help give everyone else a good time.)

Guy cast me as Alan Trode, the motorcycle dealer/mechanic who has married into the dysfunctional O’Leary family. The costume hint suggested biking leathers or denim jacket, so I wore a pair of jeans and a leather jacket – although it was so hot (we played in June, on the hottest day of the year so far) that I only wore the jacket for a few minutes.

Alan and Corey inside (with Janis and Cornelius on the balcony outside)

We played A Will to Murder with the minimum of six players. I think A Will to Murder works better with slightly more players, but a couple of players who had promised to attend had to drop out. A Will to Murder still works fine with six, but it would have been better with more.

None of the other players had played a Freeform Games murder mystery before (and Guy hadn’t run one either). Apart from a slightly slow start, though, they all seemed to take to it like old hands.

From what I could see, the slow start was partly because most of the players knew each other well (and had some catching up to do) and also because we only had six players. With few players, it’s possible that everyone in your Tips for Beginners is already talking to someone else. So that means you must:

  • Interrupt, which isn’t a natural action for a reserved Brit like myself.
  • Strike up a conversation with someone else with someone you don’t know. You should do this anyway, but at the start of a game conversations with someone your character doesn’t really know can be a bit awkward as nobody wants to give anything away too soon.
  • Wait (which is what happens after you’ve finished that awkward conversation in the bullet point above…).

I’m not going to talk about the plot of A Will to Murder because, well, spoilers, but I’m happy to report that for me, I had a relatively successful game (as measured by number of goals achieved, which isn’t a proper measure of success). I had four goals, and I succeeded in two of them. As one of them was effectively impossible (keeping a secret is always doomed to failure in one of our games!) I regard that as two out of three. That’s pretty good for me – I’m often hopeless at achieving my character’s goals.

Regina and Gillian

And that’s not really how I measure success anyway. It’s all about whether I had a good time – and I certainly did. I enjoyed the game, I enjoyed watching everyone get into character, and I enjoyed the stories and the laughing at the end as everyone’s secrets were revealed.

So overall I had a lovely time playing A Will to Murder. I met new people, and hopefully I will get to run another game for them soon.

Way out West in book form

I’ve wanted to publish our murder mystery games in book form for a long time now, so I’m particularly pleased to be able to say that Way out West is available from Amazon.

Way-out-West-bookOne of the problems with publishing a murder mystery game in book format is that you can’t actually play the murder mystery without destroying the book. So that means either providing a CD with the character files on, or providing a download link, or asking customers to buy the downloadable version as well.

None of those are particularly satisfactory; the CD is more complexity, the download means coming up with a way for a secure password and makes VAT more complicated, and nobody wants to buy two versions of the same game.

But our free version of Way out West (which you can get simply by signing up to our newsletter) solves those problems. Now you can have the book and downloadable files at the same time.

CreateSpace

We used Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing system for Way out West. This is a print-on-demand service that means we don’t have to keep any expensive stock, or become involved in shipping.

We chose Amazon over Lulu for two main reasons. First, Amazon is the online retailing heavyweight, and by having one of our games on Amazon we might attract new customers. Second, Amazon Prime members get free shipping on a CreateSpace book, which is an added bonus.

I have to say that I found CreateSpace a bit fiddly to use. If we ever use it again I suspect it will be much easier.

Contents

We’ve had to think about the contents and layout of Way out West compared to the downloadable files. With the downloadable files, while we expect you to read the instructions first, you can read the other files in any order you like.

With a book, though, we needed to decide an order for everything. So here’s the contents:

Introduction

  • Welcome to Way out West: This section.
  • What the host does: A brief summary of what the host of a Freeform Games murder mystery does.
  • Cactus Gulch Gazette: The front page of the local newspaper, containing background information.
  • Cast list: A brief summary of all the characters in Way out West, including the extra characters that come with the purchased edition.
  • Casting: Tips for casting Way out West.
  • About the Author

Timetable

  • Before the game: Our suggested timetable leading up to your murder mystery party.
    Invitations: What to include in your invitations.
  • Your Venue: Advice on preparing your venue.
  • Preparing Way out West: Printing characters and getting everything ready for play.
  • On the day: Our step-by-step guide to hosting Way out West.
  • Solution: Every murder needs a solution.

Characters

  • Introduction: An explanation of how the characters are presented.
  • Characters: The detailed backstories for each character, including goals and a list of the characters that they know.
  • Tips for players: Playing one of our murder mystery games can sometimes be a bit confusing for some people, so these are our tips to help them get started.

Rules

  • Player rules: The basic rules for Way out West.
  • Detailed rules: The detailed rules that the Host needs, covering things like gunfights and arrests.

Afterword

  • Buying the main game: What you get if you purchase the full version of Way out West.
  • Questions: Where to go if you have questions about Way out West or any of our other games.
  • Our other games: A selection of our other games.

Pricing

Unfortunately we can’t offer this book for free, as there are costs involved in producing a physical product. However, we have kept the book as cheap as possible and it is on sale for $5.99.

Available on Amazon

You can purchase Way out West on Amazon here (US) and here (UK).

Way out West on Kindle

Another advantage of using Amazon means that it’s pretty easy to create a Kindle version. Easy, but not seamless. We found we had to make a few changes to the layout to suit a Kindle, in particularly removing anything complicated (such as the three column layout for the newspaper) and the boxes for item cards.

To be honest, a Kindle version of Way out West is a bit of experiment. It’s not as easy to use as a book, and I don’t think anyone would ever be able to actually play Way out West from the Kindle version. It’s for those who really like their Kindles…

You can see Way out West Kindle Edition here (US) and here (UK).

Looking back at 2014

So it’s that time of year again when we look back at the past twelve months and review how we did. We did this for 2013, and now it’s time for 2014.

Sales overall – a bit flat

2014 was overall a bit flat for us – a rise of just over 1%. However, that figure hides quite a bit of good news, as although the first few months were generally very bad, since the beginning of September our sales picked up and showed typically 10-20% year-on-year growth.

Hopefully that trend will continue into 2015.

We believe that the improvement is down to two things: first, we’ve improved our website and made it more user-friendly (and thus search-engine friendly). Second, Google changed it’s algorithms again. A couple of years ago Google changed their algorithm and penalized low-quality websites. Unfortunately it seems that they were a bit over-zealous and we might have been caught by that change. Last year they re-tweaked their algorithms and we appear to be one of the beneficiaries. Hopefully future tweaks will only be to our benefit!

Best selling games

Once again, our best selling games were Way out West (by some way), then Casino Fatale, and followed by Hollywood Lies. The overall levels of sales were broadly the same as for 2013, with Casino Fatale dropping a bit. Overall, the top three games accounted for 28% of our sales.

Way out West goes Steampunk

Way out West – our best-selling game of 2014

We believe that Way out West’s popularity is boosted as it’s our free game – so presumably customers are upgrading to the paid version when they want to add more players. One thing we could do to test that is to change the free game, and that’s something we may think about in the future.

New and updated games

Murder on the Dance Floor

Murder on the Dance Floor – one of our two new games for 2014

We published two new games in 2014: Death on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Murder. We also updated one of our older games, Murder at Sea (originally All at Sea), bringing it into line with our current format.

Sales of A Speakeasy Murder have started strongly, and in 2015 it may be challenging Hollywood Lies for a top three position.

Doubling our newsletter’s readership

In 2014 we doubled the readership of our newsletter, which was its best growth for a long time. By signing up to our newsletter you also get to download our free copy of Way out West, which no doubt helps explains some of the growth!

Improving the website

Last year we identified that we needed to improve our website and as a result we:

  • Made a few cosmetic changes (including more photos) and rearranged the layout to make it more friendly.
  • Changed the site header to the montage photograph when testing proved that it was more effective than a testimonial.
  • Added a page for customers new to our games.
  • Updated the FAQ and pulled it all into one place (it was tucked around in different places before).
    combined the stories and pictures pages into a single page, which makes them easier to see (and avoids duplicating content which can be a search-engine black mark).
  • Kept the blog going fairly consistently for most of the year, but towards the end of the year Real Life got away from me and I was unable to update is as much as I liked. I’m hoping to be a bit more regular again in 2015.

Overall the website changes seem to have worked, so I think that’s a success.

Looking back at our plans for 2014

We set ourselves some goals this time last year. Here’s how we did:

  • Get the website into a healthier place: Overall traffic was flat, but that hides a dip in the early part of 2014 and an encouraging upward trend since the start of September. So hopefully that will continue.
  • Publish Murder on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Slaughter: success. We thought we might get Death on the Rocks published as well, but that has slipped.
  • Update All at Sea: success, and now published as Murder at Sea.
  • Mo and I talked about possibly getting together one weekend to write a game (a bit like Peaky), but that didn’t happen and it was always optional.

Looking forward to 2015

Our plans for 2015 include:

  • Continuing to improve the website, and keep an eye on its performance.
  • Publish Death on the Rocks.
  • Update Hollywood Lies, bringing it into line with our current format.
  • Publish our standard rules. Our outstanding action from the feedback we received last May was to prepare standard rules that can be shared and sent out in advance. We’re well on the way with this.

Here’s looking forward to a good 2015 for Freeform Games!

Playtesting Death on the Rocks

IMG_6111Back on 20th July we ran a playtest of our new game Death on the Rocks, in London.

Playtesting is an important part of our development process. However well a murder mystery game’s been written and edited, it can’t be considered finished until it’s been thoroughly tested.

We call it ‘playtesting’ because it takes the form of playing through the game in the normal sort of way that you would if you’d bought it yourself. We aim to make it as close as possible to what your experience is going to be like! The only difference is that afterwards, we ask the guests a bunch of questions about how it went for them.

Testing, testing…

Our usual preferred pattern is to run at least three playtests, once the game is complete in draft.

  • First, the author of the game playtests it themselves, on their own family and friends. This will reveal any elements that basically don’t work, or serious timing issues, or where something important isn’t being communicated properly to the player.
  • Second, once all those things have been fixed, we run a playtest ourselves; using experienced players who can be relied upon to identify inconsistencies, imbalance, characters without enough to do, characters for whom the game starts or finishes too quickly or slowly, and if there are any subtle problems with any new rules or bits of system that we’ve introduced for this game.
  • Finally, once all that’s been sorted out, we send the game out to a new host who’s never seen it before, and they run a party for their guests exactly as if they’d just bought the game. This is particularly helpful for exposing any parts of the host’s instructions that aren’t explained clearly, and also for how well the game works when there are less than the optimum number of characters. It’s also good for cultural differences: as most of our customers are in the USA, we like to have a US-based host run an eye over the game – particularly if it’s been written by a UK-based author, as most of ours are.

Any or all of these stages will get repeated more than once if there are serious problems that need re-testing after fixing.

So anyway, for Death on the Rocks it was actually a combination of stages one and two. Jessica the author wasn’t able to test the game herself, as she lacked the facilities. So we decided that as it was a pretty straightforward game with no new rules or complications, we would run a test together with her, using our experienced playtesters.

A cellarful of murder

IMG_6183We held the event in the basement room of a pub in central London that we’ve used a few times before for playtests. They know us now, so they’re happy to let the murderous mayhem proceed unabated! We usually use either London or here in Ipswich where we’re based, simply because it’s easier to rustle up 20 or so players for a given date in those places. We would like to run playtests elsewhere too, to spread the love, but it’s been difficult getting enough people together.

We ran the test over a Sunday afternoon, between 2 and 6. Most of our customers’ parties are in the evening, but that’s not quite so convenient when we have to think about last trains back home and so on. Customers’ parties often involve a good deal of drinking, too! – but we prefer to keep that restrained at playtests. The feedback at the end of the game might not be quite so useful otherwise!

How did it go?

Really well! Death on the Rocks is a game that we’ve been working on for quite a while – Jessica actually first came to us with the idea as far back as 2006! – so we were pretty confident that it would work properly. It’s always nice to have that confirmed, though!

Our playtesters gave us some excellent feedback on details that need attention, but generally they were very happy with the characters, with pacing, with how much they had to do, and so on. One general concern was that the murder was too difficult to solve – several of them did identify the murderer correctly, but by suspicion rather than by following the intended clue trail. So we’re going to make the clues a bit more prominent, and spread knowledge of them around a few more people.

IMG_6254 Next up

So those changes are in process now, and in a few weeks we’ll be sending the revised and improved version of the game to our next tester. This is Matthias, who’ll be running his playtest around the end of August–beginning of September. We’re looking forward to hearing what he and his guests make of Death on the Rocks!

Cafe Casablanca from the GM’s perspective

Last year I talked about how Mo and I attended The King’s Musketeers, a weekend long freeform. This year’s weekend game was Cafe Casablanca, and while Mo played Philip Marlowe, I was one of the six “directors” (ie, a host).

Mo as Marlowe

Mo, looking very dapper as Philip Marlowe

Cafe Casablanca is based on Hollywood thrillers and wartime dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s – particularly those starring Humprey Bogart such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Cafe Casablanca is broadly very like one of our games, but much much bigger. To get a sense of how much bigger Cafe Casablanca is…

Cafe Casablanca needed six directors – and we were busy for the entire game.

But that’s not surprising – we had 74 players to manage!

Cafe Casablanca took an entire weekend to play – from Friday evening through to Sunday lunch. I’ve worked out that we generated about 1300 hours of person-hours of entertainment!

I was the “harbour director” and responsible for overseeing all the mischief being done in the harbour. That’s another difference with our games – Cafe Casablanca had very definite locations, from the harbour, to the police headquarters, the Gestapo office, Rick’s Bar and the casbah.

Playing Cafe Casablanca

Cafe Casablanca in full flow

The harbour turned out to be quite an exciting place – I was never bored. I oversaw art robberies, sabotage, salvage operations (there were all sorts of things hiding in the harbour), shark attacks, and even a raid on a battleship!

Character envelopes

74 character envelopes!

It took us hours to complete all the character envelopes for this game – but that’s not surprising given that they contained:

  • A character booklet (typically 8 pages of tiny print)

  • The rules booklet

  • Extra rules for those that needed it, such as the gang wars that were going on in the casbah

  • Complicated name badges containing secret codes and symbols (that some people could read)

  • Abilities, including heart abilities and romantic requests

  • Cards for the the romance mechanic

  • Cards to allow certain shady characters to cheat at gambling.

  • Stickers for the poison and pickpocket rules

  • Contingency envelopes

  • Lots of items, including some with props, such as passports.

It was interesting to see how things have developed over the last few years. Cafe Casablanca was originally written over 20 years ago, and I’d do some things differently these days. For example, it wasn’t particularly easy to prepare. We provide a guide for preparing character envelopes in our instructions, but there was no such thing for Cafe Casablanca – there were various documents here and there, but no master.

But then I doubt Cafe Casablanca was ever written with the intention of being regularly re-run, so making that sort of thing easy probably wasn’t high on their agenda. We make our games as easy to prepare as we can because we hope they are going to be played many times!

Anyway, next year’s weekend long freeform is Lullaby of Broadway, which is inspired by Broadway musicals. And I’m going to be playing again.

Steve Hatherley

2013 in review

So how was 2013 for Freeform Games?

Actually, it wasn’t great. Sales were down by about 20% in 2013 compared to 2012. In fact, it was our worst year since 2005. Ouch! Affiliate sales were particularly badly hit and were down about 40%.

We believe that much of this is thanks to Google’s latest algorithm updates. Over the last couple of years Google has been “improving” the quality of its search results, and it has been targetting spammy websites and other “black hat” search engine tricks. We’ve not employed any black-hat tricks, but we think we’ve been caught in the wash.

So we’re trying to improve our website (you’ve probably seen the redesign), both from our visitors’ perspective, and Google’s. And as Facebook becomes more important, we’re being more active on Facebook. But we’ve still got a lot to learn.Way out West - one of our top selling games of 2013

Highlights of 2013

  • Our stalwarts continue to sell well – Casino Fatale, Way out West, Hollywood Lies. Pirates seem to have lost their lustre; A Dead Man’s Chest used to be one of our more popular games, but appears to have fallen from favour. We need Disney to reinvigorate Pirates of the Caribbean!

  • We published one new game, Lord and Lady Westing’s Will in 2013.

  • We’ve continued our Facebook page, and I think we’re starting to get the hang of it now. We see Facebook as a place where you can contact us easily, and where we can ask questions and post things that interest us that we think might interest you.

  • We started this blog! And we’ve posted over thirty times – roughly once a fortnight. We see this blog as an opportunity to talk about our games in a bit more detail than on Facebook.

  • We also now sell games in multiple currencies – US $ and Euros as well as good old pounds, shillings and pence. So now if you are buying our games from the USA or Europe, you know exactly how much you’ll be paying.

Things we should do better

  • Playtests – we didn’t run any playtests ourselves in 2013, partly because A Speakeasy Slaughter wasn’t quite ready. But we did commission three that others ran for us – two of Murder on the Dancefloor and one of A Speakeasy Slaughter.

  • Unlike our Facebook page, our Google+ page isn’t anywhere near as popular. Google+ is a different audience – we probably need to think about how we make the best use of G+, instead of simply reposting everything that we post on Facebook.

  • Pinterest – we’re on Pinterest, but not really so that you’d know it.  We need to do better.

  • Twitter – we have a Twitter feed, which currently echoes our Facebook page. But it’s another way that you can get in touch with us.

Looking forward into 2014

  • First priority has to be to get the website into healthier place. We need to get it re-liked by Google, and we also need to make sure it’s visitor-friendly.Playing Casino Fatale

  • We are hoping to publish two games in 2014: Murder on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Slaughter. We might also get Death on the Rocks out as well.

  • We’ll update All at Sea, bringing it into line with our recent games.

  • Mo and I may get together one weekend to see if we can write a game together, a bit like Peaky. If that’s a success, we’ll do more of them and that may mean we can publish more games each year.

  • And we’d love to hear from you – what do you think we should be doing in 2014? Or what should we stop doing?

Why do we have a separate host for our murder mystery games?

Our murder mystery games are different from many others in many ways, one of which is that our games need a dedicated host. Instead of playing a detective or a suspect along with everyone else, our hosts oversee play and coordinate events and the rules.

 

The Karma Club

Things get tense at The Karma Club

I know that some people would like to be able to host their game and play in it, but our games really do need a separate host. We didn’t have to write them that way – so why did we?

With our background in tabletop roleplaying games, it was perhaps inevitable that Mo and I would write games that require a “gamesmaster” role in our games. But that’s because the kind of games and events that we want to write about require such a thing. They can’t easily be done without a dedicated host.

So here, in no particular order, are just some of the reasons our games require a dedicated host:

  • There’s no need to worry about inadvertently reading a game secret when you print out the game. If the host is also a player, then they have to be very careful about what they read, just in case they find out the identity or the murderer or some other piece of key information. (And that’s assuming they resist the temptation to cheat.)

  • A dedicated host allows us to introduce rules that require a neutral referee, such as combat and pickpocketing. If we didn’t have a neutral referee we wouldn’t include these rules.

  • It’s easier to cast your players if you can see the characters first. The host usually knows most of the players, and can cast accordingly.

  • A host can focus on making sure that the party is an overall success, and won’t be distracted by trying to achieve their in-character objectives.

  • They can adjudicate on any of the wild and wacky ideas that the players may dream up. This is perhaps one of the most important roles of the host, as our murder mystery games give the players considerable flexibility in how they achieve their goals. Instead of endless, overly complicated rules, the host oversees the game and adjudicates on player requests to ensure that everyone has a good time.

Having said all that, we’ve written before with tips for playing a character and being the host.

But if you want to both host and play our games, then the best solution may be to host one game, and then get a friend to host the next.

Steve Hatherley

3 tips for a successful Christmas murder mystery party!

First choose the right game!

Our best-selling mystery at this time of year is of course The Night before Christmas. This game, set in a high-class New England family’s hunting lodge, is for 12–15 guests and a host, and we also have 5 free extra characters that you can add in if you need more.

Of course, The Night before Christmas isn’t just for the 24th December – it works well at any time in the run-up to the big day. But if you’re organizing your party after Christmas itself, then you want Dazzled to Death instead! This is basically exactly the same game, but with the specific Christmas theming removed.

Or if you don’t have that many guests, check out Snow Business, our other winter-themed murder mystery – this one is for 10–12 guests, and it’s set in a ski chalet with another murderous family get-together.

Second, pick the right music!

You want something appropriately festive, but also suiting the period. The Night before Christmas is set in the 1950s, so Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and other classics like Let it Snow!, Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Baby and Sleigh Ride are absolutely perfect.
Snow Business is set in the present day, but in a cheesy Alpine resort, so a selection of more modern Christmas songs would be great – Last Christmas, Do They Know It’s Christmas, All I Want for Christmas is You, Fairytale of New York – that sort of thing. With some Euro dance music mixed in!

Third, serve the right food and drink!

We always recommend our games are accompanied with finger food rather than a sit-down meal, and Christmas nibbles are ideal for this. Here’s a great list of simple but delicious recipes from the BBC, and here are some more ambitious and impressive canape recipes from taste.com. And here kidspot.com has some terrific dessert ideas for afterwards!

As for drink, there’s the traditional punch (alcoholic or not), mulled wine, eggnog, and hot chocolate. Here’s a good mixture of those together with some festive cocktails, from the BBC again. And eatingwell.com has a great selection here of non-alcoholic drinks, for everyone to enjoy!

The other important tip is: get planning well in advance! We recommend starting two weeks beforehand, ideally. If you don’t have that long, that’s OK, but you’ll have to be organized: don’t leave it to the last minute before printing out the character booklets!

We at Freeform Games will be on duty throughout the holiday period, here to answer your inquries and help with any problems. But if you follow these tips, everything should go just fine and you and your guests will have a terrific and murderous Christmas party! Do please let us know how it goes…

Bryant and May and the Invisible Code

It may seem a bit of a surprise, given that I write, edit and publish murder mystery party games, but I read very little crime fiction. I don’t really enjoy them, and I don’t find them that useful as inspiration because in our games, the murder is often just one of many different plotlines. Also, in crime fiction the murder plot is often so difficult to unpick that we couldn’t write our games that way. In our games, we can’t rely on the brilliant detective solving the mystery – everyone has to have a fair chance.

Bryant and May and the Invisible CodeSo I read very little crime fiction. I don’t even watch that much crime drama on television.

I make an exception for Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, though. Arthur Bryant and John May are a pair of elderly, decrepit senior detectives well past their retirement date. I’ve just finished Bryant and May and the Invisible Code, the 10th in the Bryant and May series (although they appear in a number of Fowler’s other novels as well).

Bryant and May head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU), a much-maligned unit that the Home Office would love to shut down – except for the PCU’s incredible success rate at solving strange crimes that nobody else can solve. John May is procedural and proper, while the Arthur Bryant eschews traditional detection methods and consults with witches, occultists and other fringe characters.

Arthur Bryant is possibly my favourite fictional character: blunt, eccentric, erudite, rude, esoteric – and often laugh-out-loud funny. John May is Bryant’s straight man, and while the rest of the PCU team have their moments, none are as memorable as Bryant.

In The Invisible Code, the PCU are investigating yet another bizarre murder and become embroiled in a sinister conspiracy of silence concerning key government figures. And I’m not going to say more than that, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

Each of the books can be read on their own, but there’s a definite sense of time in the later books (from White Corridor onwards) as the PCU relocate to new offices and new characters are introduced.

If you’re interested in reading more, I wouldn’t start with the first in the series, Full Dark HouseFull Dark House chronicles Bryant and May’s first meeting during the London Blitz, but to enjoy it fully you really need to know who the characters are in the first place, as it recreates the Blitz through flashbacks.

So instead, I suggest starting with the second book, The Water Room. The Water Room is quite bizarre, and definitely my favourite of the series – if you don’t like The Water Room then you probably won’t like the rest. I’d then follow that up with Seventy Seven Clocks (third in the series), before returning to Full Dark House.

So as Christmas approaches, you might want to put this on your Christmas list.

Steve Hatherley